Retas Sejarah

Vanda Felbab-Brown // Crime as a Mirror of Politics: Urban Gangs in Indonesia

Following a wave of violent confrontations and tit-for-tat killings, the leaders of five mass organizations-cum-urban gangs in Greater Jakarta – Pemuda Pancasila (PP), Pemuda Panca Marga (PPM), the Betawi Brotherhood Forum (FBR), the Betawi People’s Forum (Forkabi), and Badan Pembina Provinsi Keluarga Banten (BPPKB) – agreed to a ceasefire in June 2012. The violence to be shut down had erupted in the late winter and early spring of 2012, escalating and taking on ethnic overtones in March 2012 when the leader of another gang John Refra, a.k.a. John Kei, was arrested on murder charges. Fronting as a debt-collecting business, Kei’s Key Youth Force (Amkei) was centered on Moluccan migrants in Jakarta and had been clashing with rival gangs from Flores. The June gang truce, facilitated by police negotiations and mediation, for a moment seemed to turn the violence off. The gang truce paralleled a ceasefire announced by two large gangs in El Salvador – an ocean away.

In El Salvador, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle 18, two large transnational gangs whose notoriety and proclivity to violence greatly surpasses the Jakarta toughs, declared a ceasefire in March 2012. In exchange for various privileges for imprisoned gangs leaders and members, the two maras promised the El Salvadorian government that they would turn off the violence that has significantly contributed to El Salvador’s extraordinarily murder rate of over 60 per 100,000 which for years plagued El Salvador’s citizens. Endorsed and facilitated by the government and the Catholic church, the truce was celebrated as a major breakout from the high urban criminal violence. Indeed, the truce appears to have reduced murders and other visible violence in El Salvador during the past year. Even as extortion and less visible forms of violence have continued since the deal and even though there were signs in the fall of 2012 that the truce was becoming shakier and less stable, the truce has held so far and has been declared (rather controversially) by the government to be a model of dealing with urban gangs.

By contrast, in Jakarta the truce did not hold; and several weeks later, turf contestations among its gangs were back on. Of course, with 8 homicides per 100,000, Indonesia’s murder rate is nowhere close to El Salvador’s. In fact, despite occasional dramatic killings by the gangs that draw sensationalist media attention, Indonesia’s urban gangs come across as rather docile compared to their Central American brethren. Jakarta’s smog may be deadly and its traffic murderous and the inability of Jakarta’s cabbies to locate any address may well push one’s self-control to the threshold of violence; but with respect to crime, Jakarta is a remarkably safe city. Even in the vast slums where, as in San Salvador, the state is absent and the gangs rule, the atmosphere of violence is palpably lower than in many of Latin America’s cities. That does not mean that the Jakarta gangs do not exercise a great deal of power and authority over both slum areas and some business parts of the city. Just like in Rio de Janeiro, some gangs may at times have a virtual stranglehold on a neighborhood, complete with checkpoints and controlled entry into the slum.

The State and the Street Rough

Yet the violence is indeed much lower in Jakarta – one reason being that the influence that official authority, such as the law enforcement, exercises over the gangs is great. Indeed, Indonesian gangs have a decades-old history of thick and complex relations with the Indonesia government, primarily its military, intelligence, and police forces, and also with Indonesian political parties that goes back to Indonesia’s independence. That basic set-up of the gangs doing the bidding of the formal powers has weathered dramatic changes in the country’s fundamental political arrangements and forms of rule over the decades. The faces and names of the gangs have changed, but the essential arrangement of official power remaining the true master and overlord of the criminal underground and employing the gangs for the purposes of the state and political bosses – as shady and illicit as these purposes may often be – has persisted.

In Latin America too, the state has often used criminal groups to advance its goals: In Mexico, deals and arrangements between the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional [PRI] that ruled Mexico for 71 years plus Mexican law enforcement agencies on the one hand,  and drug-trafficking groups on the other hand, moderated crime until the 1980s. In Rio de Janeiro and Jamaica, politicians have long used the urban gang bosses to deliver votes and collect donations for their political parties in exchange for patronage. In Central America, the military and intelligences services employed criminal groups to fight insurgents during the civil wars of the 1980s; and in the 1990s, organized crime groups there evolved from the military-crime nexus of the civil wars. However, Latin American urban gangs have frequently broken away from their subservient relationship vis-à-vis the official power elite and have become rather disobedient, and at times very violent.

In Indonesia, and throughout much of South and Southeast Asia, the state and major formal political parties have been better able to hold the rein on the criminal gangs. That is not to say that the urban gangs, and their facades and manifestations as youth wings of political parties, are totally under the thumb of the politicians or military and police forces. They are agents in of themselves, with their own political and coercive power, at times fiercely asserting their own identity and agency. They negotiate and push back against their political-military overlords even as they take orders from them. Still, in contrast to Latin America, the relationship between the gangs and official political power in South and Southeast Asia has overall remained far smoother and less confrontational. By and large, the gangs have remained tightly integrated into the formal political processes and often closely linked with particular political parties.

Whether taking over unregulated spaces through force due to the absence of other regulators or being de facto granted concessions from the state, the Indonesian gangs have collected rents from various informal and illegal enterprises. They will organize, direct, and tax informal parking on Indonesia’s city streets; the fees are minimal and a refusal to pay may well result in slashed tires or a scratched car, but unlike in parts of Rio, it is unlikely to land one in a hospital. Gangs will also tax nightclubs and street vendors for protection. Often, this informal tax collection can be pure extortion; at other times, the gangs may actually provide protection against rivals, often from different ethnic groups, not merely against themselves. The nightclub protection racket tends to be highly lucrative: The Association of Indonesian Entertainment and Recreation Center Entrepreneurs claimed that over 400 nightclubs, bars, massage parlors, and discos in Jakarta generate revenues of around $200 million annually, with owners spending about 20% on formal and informal fees.

At times, the protection racket can become quite formalized, with gang members hired off the street by “formal” security or debt-collection services. In fact, Jakarta’s business operators have increasingly moved to these formal, legal firms, instead of hiring the informal gangs straight off the street to pay for protection and debt-collection services. The membership between these two types of protection outfits often highly overlaps, but the bosses of the former tend to sport ties rather than tattoos. Like their brethren around the world, gangs in Indonesia also have taxed, or run, gambling, prostitution networks, and local drug distribution operations. At times, the gangs provide informal microcredit, but that service tends to be rather abusive and frequently slips into loan-sharking.

The Many Facets of Preman

There are many types of gangs in Indonesia and they vary in their savviness of how to accumulate power, cultivate political connections, and acquire political capital. Rather surprisingly, many Indonesian gangs frequently do not appear to provide extensive socio-economic services to the communities where they operate or deliver otherwise absent public goods, beyond providing protection and security. Many of the street vendors I interviewed throughout Java and in Sumatra, for example, complained about the gang taxes and claimed that the gangs were of little use to them and appeared to welcome when the state acted to suppress the gangs.

Some are informal organizations of soldiers and sailors out for fun after dark, and one would not expect them to have political ambitions or organize services parallel to or in the absence of the state. Neither would one expect such behavior from the motorcycle gangs, such as the Moonraker, Grab on Road (GBR), and Exalt to Coitus (XTC), that operate in Indonesia. But since Indonesia moves on mopeds and motorcycles, distinguishing a motorcycle gang of the Hells Angels-type from a gang that employs the typical Asian means of transportation may be tricky.


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